McDonald’s has been working towards its 100% sustainably sourced coffee goal since 2014: and with just over a year to go, it says clear results are materializing.
And the company believes its emphasis on sustainability can help shape the public's perception of the brand: away from quick cheap coffee to a brand known for product quality.
Short-term sustainability goals
McDonald’s now sustainably sources 84% of its US coffee and 54% of its coffee worldwide “as part of its efforts to protect coffee from the adverse effects of climate change.”
Some of its global markets have already reached 100% sustainably sourced coffee, but the company continues to work on sustainability in these markets in order to maintain this.
Townsend Bailey, McDonald’s director of supply chain sustainability, told BeverageDaily that sustainability is an ongoing issue: coming with both challenges and opportunities.
“Sustainability is a process. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey. So once we get to 100% sustainably sourced, we’re still working on climate change. We’re still working with farmers and making sure our coffee farmers are engaged and supported throughout the supply chain. Hitting that target is more of a milestone than a destination,” he said.
“It’s so important that consumers understand where their food comes from, how it’s produced and why that’s important so that they continue to demand that [from] companies.”
McDonald’s partners with organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, Conservation International, Solidaridad, COSA and Fair Trade to certify its coffee and support the farmers it works with. It has trained about 20,000 farmers since 2012 on sustainable practices the company abides by, including reforestation and water quality to maintain healthy land.
Specifically, McDonald’s launched its Sustainability Improvement Platform (SIP) with Conservation International in 2016 as “a framework guiding the coffee supply chain in sustainable sourcing, as well as an investment in coffee growers and their communities over the long term.”
McCafe SIP is not a certification system, but a means to verify positive impact at the farm level by leveraging scorecards and third-party verification systems. It also provides roasters with guidance across four key elements they must achieve in order to have a SIP-approved program.
Transparency – understanding who grows coffee and identifying all farms participating in a SIP-approved program.
Producer collaboration – identifying farmers’ needs and collaborating with local partners to provide relevant training and tools.
Measured performance – tracking progress against globally recognized indicators for sustainable coffee production.
Assurance – verifying data through third-party audits.
Mitigating a crisis
Record-low coffee prices are affecting global coffee farms, particularly in Central and South America. According to McDonald’s, the coffee crop is highly vulnerable to rising temperatures and many farmers are struggling to cover basic costs of production and labor due to the changing climate.
It cites a study by The Climate Institute that showed climate change has the potential to cut the world’s coffee-growing area in half by 2050. In response, McDonald’s was the first global restaurant company to address this in March 2018 “by setting a target approved by independent experts to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.”
“We know many people enjoy coffee as part of their daily routine, and, at McDonald’s, we are taking meaningful steps to support farmers protecting it from climate change. As we continue on our journey to build a better McDonald’s, we are using our size and scale to implement significant changes that are important to our customers, our people and the environment,” Bailey said.
McDonald’s isn’t the only global company taking steps to address the coffee crisis, however. In September, Starbucks announced a $20m investment in its own coffee growers to offset the financial pressure being felt on farms. Starbucks currently purchases about 650m pounds of coffee every year to serve its global audience.
At the time, Starbucks senior VP of Global Coffee and Tea Michelle Burns said “Our purpose as a company has always been around trying to lead in doing what’s right and impacting lives, and in this case the lives of farmers. We wanted our commitment to be meaningful and impactful, but most importantly we wanted to ensure that we were getting it into the right hands of the small farmer.”
Bettering beyond coffee
McDonald’s is calling this announcement its “latest update on building a better McDonald's.” It recently confirmed that all McDonald’s classic burgers are free from artificial preservatives, artificial flavors and added colors from artificial sources.
It has also revealed plans to transition to cage-free eggs in the US and Canada by 2025. By the end of 2020, it will source an unspecified portion of its beef from suppliers participating in sustainability programs that align with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef principles and criteria.
McDonald’s also claimed that by 2020, nearly all its dairy products served in the US will come from farms that participating in the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program.
Through all its environmental advocacy, the company also strives to engage with its consumers who have come to expect little more from McDonald’s McCafe than a quick, cheap cup of coffee. It hopes that through these initiatives it can change the public’s perception of the brand and showcase its investment in product quality.
Consumers are already looking for more transparent companies who share origin and sourcing information for their supply chain because they are concerned with the immediate and long-term effects of climate change. Townsend believes public interest in ethical and sustainable companies will only increase, emphasizing how important it is for McDonald’s to be on the factual side of the climate change debate.
“As customers become more connected, more information is available. And as supply chains become more transparent and as the impacts of climate change become more real, these issues and topics are not going away and customers will continue to care for them,” he said.